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Adding Intensity

Sean Lerwill EZ bar bicep curl with FatGripz (Credit: snhfoto)

I was asked recently why I always mention intensity, and whether it’s a Marine thing. I had to sit and have a think for a second; some of the things I say are left over from my Marine days, but they are so embedded I don’t even realise!

Yes, Royal Marines do train with intensity. Asking a Royal Marine to go for an “easy run” may start with all good intentions but ends in a sprint finish; intensity is bred during training and difficult to remove, even when necessary. For me, intensity is something I’ve tried to instil in those I advise to help them reach their goals. Whether someone wants to increase muscle, lose bodyfat or improve fitness, intensity in their training is key.

Intensity doesn’t just mean hammering yourself into the ground like I see some people doing. Yes, crossfit athletes are fit, strong and train very intensely. But, they don’t get that way from ONLY doing crossfit WODs to death. People like Rich Froning will do specific technique days, fitness days and strength days to allow him to compete at the level he does. Simply hammering himself into the ground isn’t the way forward.

What am I getting at, then? Well in one sense anyone can hammer themselves to death, but that isn’t really adding intensity. What we want is intensity with a brain. We want a plan. A thought out, progressive training plan which we follow with intensity. This means knowing from day to day, week to week what training is roughly going to be. There can be flexibility day to day if you need to switch the order to fit in with work/life etc. But when you follow a set session, you follow it. It’s not a case of turning up and the gym, seeing what kit is free and “having a go”.

We’ve all seen people do this as well; in fact, I’d hazard a guess that many people reading this will have at some point just turned up at the gym and slotted onto the cross trainer, bike or a machine of some sort and performed an easy session checking the phone every minute or so. Yes, these sessions are better than nothing, but that’s a bit like saying eating a carrot cake is better than having no vegetables at all. It is… but it kind of isn’t, if you know what I mean.

I would like everyone to realise that if you use the time you spend in the gym wisely, add a bit of intensity and work hard; a 40min session of that nature can be worth 5 “have a go” sessions. The question everyone should be asking is how do I make a session intense. And rightly so. The answer is actually quite simple:

By taking yourself out of your comfort zone. Sensibly.

If you are running on the treadmill, try Tabata sprints at 1.5% or 2% gradient at a speed that sees you struggling over rep 7 or 8. Or try a speed faster than you normally run at a constant speed for, then run for a min, jog or stand on the edge of the treadmill for 30 seconds and repeat x 10. Or a speed faster than that, sprint for 30seconds, rest for 30 seconds. start with 10 rounds and try to get up to 20 over a month or so. These sessions are called HIIT (high intensity interval training): short, sharp, fast, intense bouts interspersed with rest. The “intensity” is in the name. These sessions are far more intense that LISS (light intensity steady state) sessions. Add them in; you may feel uncomfortable while doing them, but you’ll also reap the health, fitness, fat burning and muscle-building benefits.

Resistance training wise, you need to get out of your comfort zone as well. The best ways to do this is to include the following:

  1. Protocols that induce failure in the muscles
  2. Slower tempo lifting
  3. Shorter rests

Failure Inducting protocols

These include things like rest/pause where you lift for a certain number of reps, then rest/pause for a count of 10, then lift to failure. You can add one, two or three rest/pauses to really take the muscle to failure and beyond. The initial weight needs to be heavy enough to ensure failure occurs but not too heavy that form is poor.

Other protocols include drops sets; these work well on machines. You lift a weight for 8-15reps aiming for failure. When you fail, you drops the weight by 20-30% and lift to failure again. Like rest/pause you can add 1, 2 or more dropsets. There are other failure inducing protocols like forced reps, half reps, supersets and trisets.

Slower tempo training

This is actually how you should lift all the time; i.e. you should be aware of your tempo and how it affects your goal. To make body transformation changes (body fat down, muscle up) paying attention to tempo is paramount. Not only does this ensure more TUT (time under tension) which means the muscles are doing more each set and rep, but it also means you are thinking about the muscles being used and concentrating on them. That muscle mind map has huge affects on your progress. A great tempo to start with is 2010: 2 seconds to lower the weight, 0 seconds hold at the bottom, 1 second to raise the weight and 0 seconds hold at the top. Or, if performing bodyweight sessions like press-ups or squats, try 2520 – 2 seconds to lower and raise, 0 seconds hold at the top, but 5 seconds hold at the bottom position. Try it! It’s harder than it sounds.

Shorter rests

Rest times are SO important. I wrote a post on them recently. For some training like strength, you need a long rest time to recover to be able to lift the weights you are aiming for. For most people however, strength is not the aim. Fatloss or muscle gain is. At times, taking short rests as another way of overloading them and inducing failure is crucial. Try a light weight for biceps curls using Tabata timings. Or try Tabata press-ups. Rumour has it Henry Cavill used Tabata training a lot to prepare for his first role as Superman. Short rest, high intensity. It works!

It’s easy to take it easy in the gym. It’s easy to feel like you are doing some exercise, but really you are just raising the heart rate as you would walking around the shops. Those sorts of sessions are needed. Easy LISS sessions help strengthen the heart and are great active rest sessions. But to build muscle, lower body fat or really work the CV system, they just don’t do the business. Add some intensity and make you body change by making your training worthwhile.

Sean Lerwill - Author

Sean is an former-Royal Marines Commando Officer & Physical Training Instructor. He has been published as a writer five times, has a BSc in Molecular Genetics and a Post Graduate Certificate in Education. He is also a Maximuscle ambassador.

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